A protest against military rule and Egypt's Army Chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, at Talaat Harab square, Cairo, January 22, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Three years after the overthrow of Mubarak the counter-revolution is gaining ground, writes John Rees

The 6 months from the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi in July last year to the third anniversary of the overthrow of the dictator Hosni Mubarak on 25 January have been the darkest days yet in the history of the Egyptian revolution.

Consider the signal events of those months:

  • The Rabaa sit in by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood was broken up by the military with the greatest loss of life of any single event in the revolution. At the very least many hundreds were killed, the highest estimates say over 2,000 were murdered.
  • The entire leadership and thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood are under arrest.
  • The Muslim Brotherhood has first been outlawed and then designated a ‘terrorist organisation’.
  • The crackdown has spread to the leaders of the April 6th movement, one of the original organisers of the 25 January revolution, who are now in jail. Supporters of the revolutionary left have also been arrested.
  • A draconian law aimed at suppressing demonstrations has been enacted and Alaa Abd El Fattah, one of the best known of the 25 January revolutionaries and others, are now behind bars awaiting trial for breaking it.
  • Bassem Youssef’s widely watched satirical TV show has been forced off the air in Egypt for making jokes at the expense of the military.
  • Nearly all critical TV channels have been closed, and journalists critical of the military have been arrested.
  • The military’s draft constitution has been passed in a rigged plebiscite with only 38 percent of the electorate taking part – but with a 98 percent approval for the military.

How did it happen?

The exhaustion of the masses and the role of the Brotherhood

The Egyptian masses have fought with extraordinary tenacity for three years. They pulled down the decades old dictatorship of Mubarak at no little cost to themselves. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) regime which replaced Mubarak clung to power and the Egyptian masses forced it to retreat and hold elections. The Morsi government which came to power in the parliamentary and presidential elections routinely compromised with the SCAF led deep state. They hoped that such a compromise would sustain them in government without having to confront this power. The Egyptian state with, as ever, SCAF as its leading edge, tolerated this for only so long as it took popular frustration to build up against the Morsi government. When that disappointment and frustration boiled over in mass demonstrations on 30th June last year, SCAF saw its chance.

The demonstrations shook the tree of government. And, as it had done before, power fell into the street. With no cohesive, popular revolutionary assembly that could command the power to pick it up, the Army stooped to conquer. Bitterness and resentment at the Muslim Brotherhood’s failure to lead, or to ally with others who would lead, the revolution into a more radical course allowed SCAF to mount the counter-revolutionary thrust that has been gaining momentum this past half-year.

‘Exhaustion’ is relative. When a movement has forward momentum, when radical solutions are enacted, when enemies retreat, energy and enthusiasm is self-sustaining. But when the revolution seem to stall, when its leaders hesitate and compromise, the exhaustion of the masses results in an urge for stabilisation, for ‘normality’, for an end, any end, to the uncertainty. It is this sentiment which the Brotherhood regime created and it is this mood on which SCAF have been relying.

As we wrote at the time of the coup the Muslim Brotherhood committed the error against which St Just warned in the French Revolution when he said ‘Those who make a revolution half way only dig their own graves’. The Muslim Brotherhood recent statement saying that they were ‘too trusting’ is a partial and belated recognition of this fact.

The liberals and the Army

The secular and nationalist liberals have paved the way for this disaster. Mohamed ElBaradei left the military’s façade government but it was he, and figures like him, that gave it a semblance of legitimacy in its first period. The novelist Alaa Al Aswany, long a supporter of the revolution, is now a supporter of the Army and his arguments for doing so are echoed across the liberal middle classes. Hamdeen Sabahi, the popular Nasserist, joined the National Salvation Front alongside old guard Mubarak former ministers and welcomed the Army defeat of the Brotherhood. Kamal Abu Eita, the leader of the independent unions, deserted the ranks of the revolution for a place as Minister of Labour in the military backed government.

Novelist and stalwart of the revolution Ahdaf Soueif has the measure of this when she writes,

‘The dispiriting thing is the massive swath of the older political liberal, nationalist elite, the writers and artists and cultural figures with a history of struggle against Mubarak, who were part of the revolution in January and who are now unequivocally on side with the generals – first against the Brotherhood, now against the revolution itself.’

There is a strand of middle class and elite opinion that always wanted to reduce the Egyptian revolution to a battle between ‘enlightenment’ nationalistic, secularism and the Brotherhood. In assisting in this polarisation the liberal current divided the political spectrum in ways that could only serve the Egyptian deep state. Indeed, by making the primary polarisation one between the Morsi government and its opponents (and this included its SCAF sponsored opponents) instead of between the revolution and the still existing deep state, this approach gave the SCAF regime both the legitimacy and the political space to stage a comeback. Far from disappearing as a social force, as some left commentators have argued, the middle classes still play a key role in situations where the working class and popular institutions are absent as directors of the struggle.

The left and Muslim Brotherhood

Let us leave aside the more ridiculous claims that the Brotherhood are ‘terrorists’, as General El Sisi the military boss of Egypt says. Let’s also leave aside the claims that the Brotherhood are ‘Islamic fascists’ as some liberals (and leftists who should know better) claim. Let’s deal with the widespread argument that the SCAF deep state and the Brotherhood are equals. This was the position of many leftist revolutionaries from Ahdaf Soueif to the Revolutionary Socialists.

In the immediate aftermath of the coup they called a ‘third square’ protest under the slogan of ‘neither the Brotherhood or the Army’. This is a fundamentally mistaken approach.

The Brotherhood are a mass organisation with a popular following and a middle class leadership which programmatically supports parliamentary democracy and a mixed economy. Its history is one of persecution by the Egyptian state and of careful and moderate opposition to that state. It was in government for a year. It ran the government as a caste with precious little regard to the fate of the wider revolution. It was self-serving. It backed the police and the Army. Under its government the police and the Army continued to repress protest. Its own constitution was a carve-up with the deep state. Many of it provisions remain in the SCAF constitution that has just won approval in the latest referendum.

But SCAF are something else altogether. They are not compromising with the deep state. They are the deep state. They are not allowing the security forces too much freedom to arrest and imprison, to shoot, kill and maim. They are the forces doing the imprisoning, shooting, killing and maiming. They are not failing to protect the masses from the ravages of big capital, they are big capital and its direct military praetorian guard. They are not in government for 12 months, they are the power that has always ruled Egypt in the modern period.

The left’s failure to recognise this distinction has been a huge error. You can see the isolation of the left that has resulted in the statements of the leaders of the revolutionary left. Sameh Naguib has a long and honourable history as a revolutionary, but he is mistaken to take this position:

‘So, the positions we take are popular enough with the Muslim Brotherhood youth. You can see that from their Facebook comments and so on. But as you might imagine, they always ask us, “why aren’t you with us on the streets?” And at the same time, on the other side, all the people who support the military accuse us of being part of ‘the Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy’. So, ours is a very isolating, indeed lonely kind of experience. We’re attacked on all sides. The Muslim Brotherhood youth want us to be on the streets with them while others are accusing us of being Muslim Brotherhood supporters. And it is extremely difficult to maintain an independent line and to keep people active in the struggle.’

There is of course no good excuse that can be given to the question asked by the Brotherhood youth. It was right to attack the Brotherhood government for not combating the deep state, and for compromising with it. But once the Brotherhood became the first victims of their own stupidity it should have been axiomatic that the left stand with them against a crackdown which it was obvious was aimed at the whole revolution. Sameh Naguib’s explanation of why the Revolutionary Socialists do not attend Brotherhood demonstrations is this:

‘We don’t go on their demonstrations: we can’t do that. Not only because of the extreme repression but also because of the sectarian nature of many of the Brotherhood slogans and the fact that they continue to call for the return of Morsi as president, which we are against.’

But one doesn’t have to share the slogans of the Brotherhood in order to protest against the repression of the state alongside them. One can demand ‘End the military government now’, ‘Free the prisoners’, ‘Defend the right to protest’. And when Brotherhood supporters ask why you don’t also call for the return of Morsi you can explain your attitude to their role in government.

To see what this approach looks like in practice it is only necessary to recall the tactics of the Bolsheviks when faced with a similar development in mid-1917.

The Kornilov coup and the coup against Morsi

In this context it is instructive to compare the coup against Morsi with the attempted coup against the provisional government of Kerensky by General Kornilov in Russia in 1917.

The Kerensky government, like the Morsi government, was deeply unpopular with the masses just a few months after coming to power. By July 1917 there were mass demonstrations calling for its overthrow, just as the June 30th protest called for the end of the Morsi government. Lenin called these protests ‘more than a demonstration, but less than a revolution’. The masses had the same reason to hate the Kerensky government as the masses had for distrusting the Morsi government. Kerensky was comprising with the representatives of Russian capital. He was opposing further revolutionary measures and, above all, he was backing the Russian army in keeping the barbarous war going. The Bolsheviks had no reason to love Kerensky either. Kerensky was conspiring with the very Generals who moved against him in order to get them to crush the Bolsheviks. Kerensky had already pushed them underground: Trotsky was in jail, Lenin in hiding and the Bolshevik printing presses were being broken up.

But when the threat of Kerensky being overthrown by a counter-revolutionary coup led by General Kornilov became real, the Bolsheviks defended Kerensky’s government from the threat from the right. Trotsky helped organise the defence of Kerensky from the prison cell in which the very same Kerensky had put him. In successfully defeating the coup the revolution regained momentum. This hugely benefitted the Bolsheviks and undermined not only Kornilov but also Kerensky. The initiative passed to the revolutionaries and the path to the October revolution was opened.

The essential point is this: fighting against Kornilov (or SCAF) alongside Kerensky (or Morsi) is not the same as supporting a Kerensky (or Morsi) government. As Lenin put it:

Even now we must not support Kerensky’s government. This is unprincipled. We may be asked: aren’t we going to fight against Kornilov? Of course we must! But this is not the same thing; there is a dividing line here, which is being stepped over by some Bolsheviks who fall into compromise and allow themselves to be carried away by the course of events.

‘We shall fight, we are fighting against Kornilov, just as Kerensky’s troops do, but we do not support Kerensky. On the contrary, we expose his weakness. There is the difference. It is rather a subtle difference, but it is highly essential and must not be forgotten … We must relentlessly fight against phrases about the defence of the country, about a united front of revolutionary democrats, about supporting the provisional government, etc. etc., since they are just empty phrases. We must say: now is the time for action; you SR and Menshevik gentlemen have long since worn these phrases threadbare. Now is the time for action; the war against Kornilov must be conducted in a revolutionary way, by drawing the masses in, by arousing them, by inflaming them (Kerensky is afraid of the masses, afraid of the people).

‘We are changing the form of our struggle against Kerensky. Without in the least relaxing our hostility towards him, without taking back a single word said against him, without renouncing the task of overthrowing him, we say that we must take into account the present situation. We shall not overthrow Kerensky right now. We shall approach the task of fighting against him in a different way, namely, we shall point out to the people (who are fighting against Kornilov) Kerensky’s weakness and vacillation. This has been done in the past as well. Now, however, it has become the all-important thing and this constitutes the change.’

And of course this was all when Kerensky was still in power. Lenin is so insistent on keeping a distance from Kerensky because he is still in government. The left in Egypt kept drawing an equals sign between Morsi and El Sisi even after the coup had thrown Morsi from government! This Bolshevik approach is the one that should have informed the Egyptian revolutionary left’s approach. Instead they divided the opposition to SCAF and allowed the ‘neither the Brotherhood nor the Army’ approach to weaken resistance to the coup.

In the balance

The coup regime is not stable, despite its popularity. It is likely that El Sisi will stand for President and that he will ‘win’ the Presidency – not so difficult when the main opposition force has been banned and its leaders arrested. It is likely that the violence, which is not Brotherhood led, and which has spread from the conflict in the Sinai to Cairo will increase. This will give SCAF a real terrorist threat to deal with where there was none before the coup.

But for all this the military cannot solve the problems of millions of poor Egyptians any more than Mubarak or any of the successor governments have been able to do. The Egyptian revolution is in its darkest hour so far. Perhaps there are darker hours still to come. But the depth of the Egyptian revolution is still not exhausted.

Building a common front against the counter-revolution which, in the first instance, locates the revolutionaries in a wider pattern of resistance is key. And this, in part, means rethinking the tactical approach to the Brotherhood. At the moment the demoralisation of the revolutionaries is an important element in the situation. Writing to his family from jail Alaa Abd El Fattah said:

‘And frankly, what’s completing my pain is the sense that this imprisonment serves no purpose. There’s no struggle and there’s no revolution and the people who’re in negotiations now even though they’re not in jail aren’t worth me giving up one hour with my son in my arms. In the past it made sense that I should be imprisoned and hold firm. I felt I was in jail by choice and I came out of it a winner. Right now I feel I can’t stand people or the country and that there’s no meaning for my imprisonment other than freeing me of the guilt of my helplessness to confront the excess of injustice and the excess of justification of it’.

Anyone familiar with what Egyptian revolutionaries are saying right now will know that this sentiment is widespread and not just one individual’s reaction to imprisonment, though no doubt and entirely understandably this acts to deepen the depression. But this mood is of a part with what has happened to other revolutionaries in similar phases of past revolutions. In fact the mood is eerily familiar to those who remember the deflation of democracy activists in Eastern Europe after 1989. Then, in the so called Velvet Restoration, one Solidarity activist wrote:

‘One does not have to like the Solidarity revolution anymore … With that revolution the time of Solidarity and Walesa had passed. The great myth turned into caricature. The movement towards freedom degenerated into noisy arrogance and greed. Soon after its victory it lost its instinct for self preservation.’

In Egypt the fate of the revolution is not sealed. The mood of depression can pass. But to revive the revolution the left must now focus on uniting the broadest possible opposition to the only enemy that counts: the military led counter-revolution.

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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